How one young actor is using American Sign Language in animation

"Madagascar: A Little Wild" Deaf actor Shaylee Mansfield says her biggest challenge is "being hired for any roles"

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published January 20, 2022 6:28PM (EST)

Shaylee and Gloria in "Madagascar A Little Wild" (DreamWorks Animation)
Shaylee and Gloria in "Madagascar A Little Wild" (DreamWorks Animation)

At only 12 years old, Shaylee Mansfield is already breaking new ground with the animated series "Madagascar: A Little Wild." Despite her youth, it still took her a while to get here.

In an interview with Salon, she said she started acting "by accident," but according to her mother, Mansfield was "born with a camera." At a young age, she began making videos with her family for their YouTube channel ASL Nook, which teaches American Sign Language (ASL) and aspects of Deaf culture.

Mansfield was born deaf to deaf parents. Her younger sister is hearing. The whole family was profiled in the documentary special "Born This Way Presents: Deaf Out Loud," executive produced by Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin.

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Though Mansfield said she "loved being in front of the camera just hamming it out," soon ASL Nook became an influential channel, especially among hearing families raising deaf children. In one of the most popular videos, a small Mansfield sits cross-legged in an armchair before a Christmas tree and performs the children's book "The Polar Express" with the gravitas of a Shakespearean actor. She's mesmerizing. 

Her big acting break came with "Noelle," the 2019 Disney+ holiday film starring Anna Kendrick. Mansfield plays a young girl who believes in Kendrick's female Santa Claus. "We all thought it was a one-time thing because Deaf roles do not happen often," Mansfield said.

But she started booking commercials. One for Disney World featuring her whole family in the amusement park, communicating with characters who know or are learning sign language, went viral and won the Gold Award at the LA Addys, the advertising industry's largest award. Her first lead role came in the 2020 Netflix film "Feel the Beat," where she portrayed a dancer.

The art of the sign-over

Shaylee interacts with Dave in "Madagascar: A Little Wild" (DreamWorks)

As if all that weren't enough, Mansfield is even teaching the entertrainment industry new ways to incorporate deaf actors. She accomplished this latest milestone with her work in the series "Madagascar: A Little Wild," a prequel to the DreamWorks Animation film franchise about animals at the Central Park Zoo who decide to escape.

In the show's sixth season, Mansfield plays an animated character named and modeled after her. The show is billing it as the first time a signing performance (a sign-over) is credited alongside speaking performances (voice-overs).

"To be credited is a huge deal," Mansfield said. "This should have happened a long time ago." 

Her acting for the animated series had to happen over Zoom, due to the pandemic. "No set, props, and people to bounce off," Mansfield said. "I had to sign my lines several times, a bit slower, from different angles in order for the animators to capture in drawing."

Her favorite part of the experience? "Going all-out with my facial expressions."

Sign language is more than merely hand signs, but complex languages with grammar that involves facial expressions, body movements, different dialects and regional accents. And ASL is simply one kind of sign language. As Mansfield wrote on her Facebook page, "the word "voice" is not just for people who "speak" with their mouth. My hands and language are very much my voice."

But, as Mansfield told Salon, "People automatically associate voice with sounds," leaving sign language out. 

A cautious step forward

We seem to be at a time of new awareness and interest about deaf stories featuring, for the most part, performers (though not writers) who are actually deaf. Shows like "Hawkeye" feature deaf actor Alaqua Cox and Jeremy Renner, who identifies as Hard of Hearing.

It's hard not to feel cautious, however. The Deaf and disabled community is used to our stories being told about us without us, usually badly. Marvel's "The Eternals," for example, didn't have open captions for deaf audiences to experience deaf superhero Lauren Ridloff in theaters, and while "Hawkeye" had an episode that was the closest thing to my own personal experience of deafness I've ever seen onscreen, it also had an episode with grating ableism.

When asked what she wished hearing people understood about experiences of deafness, Mansfield said: "Know that not all Deaf people are the same. Different backgrounds, identities, places, cultures, languages, communities, and opinions. Even our communication and accessibility preferences are not always the same. I do wish hearing people would listen to Deaf people first and let us lead."

For Mansfield, who dreams of one day working behind the camera as well as in front of it, acting is a process of combining imagination and her lived experiences: "playing as someone that's not really me and also me." Her biggest challenge is to "be hired for any roles — not just the Deaf roles. Many said that I looked like Rapunzel from 'Tangled' — how cool would it be to play her?"

Along with the signing character named Shaylee, this season of "Madagascar: A Little Wild" has a chimp character, Dave, who is deaf and signs. Dave's hearing sister also signs and interprets for him. 

"To be credited [as an actor]," Mansfield said, "I only hope will inspire people to redefine what "voice" truly means and create more voice-over jobs for signing Deaf people. I mean, they're masters at facial expressions!"

"Madagascar: A Little Wild" is now streaming on Hulu and Peacock.

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By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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